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Stories Too Big for One Movie

Feb 20, 2018
  • Writerby Christopher Weatherspoon
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A Look at Successful Korean Film Series

The first 100 years of cinema has seen the medium grow from a nascent form of entertainment into one of the world’s most dominant forms of art and communication. Over the past century, the film industry has made incredible achievements in storytelling, technology and commerce, yet one feat has remained elusive: no one has discovered a formula for guaranteed success at the box office. However some have come close with film industry experts using mountains of data to package elements that historically have attracted audiences in the past. Yet every year there are projects that boast a talented director, a-list actors and top-notch marketing that manage to do poorly. Though no guarantee for box office gold, these days’ studios are turning to franchise films to help decrease the risk of box office failure. 

A franchise uses the central plots and characters from a popular movie to create a series of films. Studios love franchises because they come with built-in awareness and fan bases. With a franchise film, much of the marketing challenge of getting audiences to the theater has been accomplished with the first installment of the series and though the sequel usually involves a bigger budget, they frequently outperform the original film financially. 

The Korean film industry has had a number of popular franchises over the years, covering nearly every genre, from horror to comedy. Some series, like director PARK Chan-wook’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002; Old Boy, 2003; Lady Vengeance, 2005) have gone on to receive international acclaim. However, Korea has had several other popular series worthy of attention.

Two Cops

Considered one of the originators of the Korean buddy-cop genre, KANG Woo-suk’s comedy-action film Two Cops (1993) was an instant hit upon its release. The movie debuted at the end of 1993, and went on to become the second most watched film of the year, behind IM Kwon-taek’s Seopyeonje (1993). 

The first installment starred AHN Sung-ki as the morally ambiguous, senior detective Jo who is forced to team up with idealistic new recruit Kang (PARK Joong-hoon). PARK would return for Two Cops 2 (1996), this time playing the corrupt senior detective opposite co-star KIM Bo-sung, who portrays the honest, competent Detective Lee. The final film in the series, Two Cops 3 (1998), changed the formula by adding a female junior detective. KIM returned as Detective Lee, who is now tasked with watching over the overly proactive, rookie female cop Choi (KWON Min-jung).

The financial success of the first installment of the Two Cops series allowed KANG to establish Cinema Service, which would go on to become one of Korea’s most influential production and distribution companies of the 1990s and early 2000s. KANG himself would go on to become a prolific filmmaker, establishing several other franchises with his 2003 assassination drama Silmido becoming the first film in Korean history to sell 10 million tickets. 

Public Enemy

Director KANG Woo-suk continued to examine themes of police corruption and brutality in the film Public Enemy (2002), which would become the first installment of a trilogy. In the film, hard-boiled, morally grey cop Kang (SUL Kyung-gu), who is under investigation by Internal Affairs, crosses path with a serial killer (LEE Sung-jae) while investigating a series of murders. SUL’s portrayal of the dark, deeply flawed Kang would earn him both the Grand Bell Award and Blue Dragon Award for Best Actor in 2002 while Public Enemy received both critical acclaim and commercial success.

SUL returned for the sequel, Another Public Enemy (2005), this time giving up the shield to become a prosecutor while investigating a case involving a former classmate. Another Public Enemy was also a commercial success, selling almost four million tickets to become the sixth most watched film of 2005 and warranting another installment. 

Public Enemy Returns (2008) is the third and final film in the series, with SUL reprising the role of Detective Kang Chul-jung. This time Kang is given a case that involves the president of a corporation who entices young men into taking the blame for his crimes. Public Enemy Returns outperformed its predecessor selling 4.3 million tickets.

Marrying the Mafia

The mob family genre was very popular in the early 2000s as evidenced by the number of films with ‘gangster’, ‘mafia’ or ‘mob’ in the title. CHUNG Hung-soon’s 2002 comedy Marrying the Mafia is the first installment in one of Korea’s most successful film franchises. Following the first film, an additional four films were released in the series over the course of 10 years.

In Marrying the Mafia, shy lab technician and mafia princess Jung-jong (KIM Jung-eun) mysteriously wakes up in bed next to law student Dae-suh (JUNG Joon-ho). Jung-jong’s three gangster brothers are not happy about the encounter and decide to confront Dae-suh, but after learning that the man is a very eligible bachelor, they instead decide to fix him up with their sister.

Marrying the Mafia became the most watched Korean film of 2002, attracting more than five million viewers. A sequel, Marrying the Mafia 2: Enemy-in-Law, was released in 2005 with a new director (JEONG Yong-ki) and cast. This time, female mafia boss Mrs. Hong tasks her sons with finding a woman for her single son. It brought in 5.6 million viewers, which made it the third most watched Korean film of 2005. Director JEONG Yong-ki returned the following year with Marrying the Mafia 3 : Family Hustle (2006), which mustered a respectable 3.5 million viewers and still managed to make the top 10 list for most viewed films of the year. The series went on a five-year hiatus and returned in 2011 with Unstoppable Family, which featured the return of the Hong clan from the first sequel, and sold 2.36 million tickets. Director JEONG Yong-ki returned to direct the most recent installment Return of the Mafia (2012), which achieved 1.2 million admissions.

My Wife Is a Gangster

My Wife Is a Gangster (2001) stars SHIN Eun-kyung as Cha Eun-jin, a tough-as-nails gang boss who gets married to fulfill her older sister’s dying wish. The popularity of the first film warranted a sequel (in addition to a Chinese remake) and CHUNG Hung-soon, who directed the first film in the Marrying the Mafia series, came on board to direct My Wife Is A Gangster 2 (2003). SHIN reprises her role in the sequel, which sees her mafia character Eun-jin becoming a modest delivery girl after losing her memories while being injured in a fight. JO Jin-kyu returned to direct the third film in the series, My Wife is a Gangster 3 : HK Edition (2006). Shot in South Korea and Hong Kong, the film had virtually no relationship to previous installments and recorded ticket sales of 1.7 million. 

Whispering Corridors

One would be hard pressed to find a Korean woman in her 30s that hasn’t watched a film in the Whispering Corridors series. Consisting of five horror films, the first installment was released in the late 90s and took advantage of South Korea’s relaxed censorship laws to examine issues of taboo subject matter that had been off-limits in the past. The films share no connections to each other, save for the fact that they all take place in an all-girl’s high school. Each installment was directed by a first-time filmmaker.

Whispering Corridors (1998) involves a former pupil returning to her high school to teach where a member of the faculty mysteriously commits suicide, setting a series of dark event in to motion. In the second film, Memento Mori (1999), a female student comes across a mysterious diary that belongs to a lesbian couple that also attends her high school. When one of the girls commits suicide, her spirit returns to wreak havoc. Wishing Stairs (2003) involves ‘close’ friends Jin-sung (SONG Ji-hyo) and Soo-hee (PARK Han-byul) locked in a competition for the opportunity to study ballet abroad. Through another student, Jin-sung learns of a stairwell at the school that grants a wish when reaching the 29th step. Jin-sung makes a wish, but it has dire consequences for Soo-hee. In The Voice (2005) Sun-min (KIM Ok-vin) is haunted by the voice of her friend Yeong-eon (SEO Ji-hye), who died while singing in the music room. When other students begin to die, Sun-min begins to wonder if her dearly departed friend is behind the murders. A Blood Pledge (2009) follows a group of girls that make a suicide pact. However, when group member Eon-ju (JANG Kyoung-ah) commits suicide and the other girls fail to keep their promise, her spirit returns to exact revenge.  

The Whispering Corridors series frequently dealt with issues such as suicide, rigid social conformity, gay relationships and the intense academic pressure placed on Korean high school students. Though the most recent installment of the series A Blood Pledge (2009) managed to sell more than its predecessor The Voice (645,000 compared to 508,000), the series has not had a new installment since 2009.

Along with the Gods

Korean newest franchise, KIM Yong-hwa’s Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017) may go down in history as one of its most important. Since its release in late December of 2017, the film has broken numerous box office records, and with more than 14 million tickets sold, is now the second best selling Korean film of all time. However, proving that Korean fantasy films can succeed domestically may be its most lasting legacy. While foreign tentpoles have found success with Korean audiences, before Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds, Korean production companies had typically avoided producing big-budget fantasy films. The staggering success of the film may encourage Korean studios to take bigger risks with film content.

Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds, which is based on a popular webtoon, was originally conceived as a two-part film and both installments were shot at the same time. The second installment, titled Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days will be released this summer.
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